by Netta Walker (1868-1942)
What does it matter for one soul more,
Millions of souls have been lost before.
—A. Lindsay Gordon.
Through the drizzling rain along a dark and friendless road a woman journeyed, clasping in her cold and aching arms a frail human atom. She scarcely heard or heeded the winning cry from under the cover of a well-worn shawl.
Faint with hunger, perishing with cold, she pressed on, fearing to stay her tired feet lest they became too weary to toil on. Many a mile she had traversed since the dawn, and as she neared the light of the city, her burden seemed heavier, till at last, she crouched exhausted beneath the portals of God’s house which stood on the outskirts of the city. Around, scarcely discernible in the fast approaching darkness, lay the graves of the dead, where God hovered and watched His sacred edifice and garden of sleep. Often times her heart had revolted to think He had so long forsaken her and her child.
Gathering the sleeping mortal closer to her throbbing breast, which heaved as the billows of a storm tossed sea, she plodded on through the streets of a beautiful and wondrous city. On through gates and winding paths leading to the door of a mansion, she stood and waited. Out of the half open window into the damp night air floated strains of sweetest music.
Come to me in the silence of the night,
Come in the speaking silence of a dream,
Come with soft-rounded cheeks,
And eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream,
Come back in tears,
Oh! memory, love, hope, Of former years.
That voice, ah, well she remembered, how long ago, my love, how long ago.
“I must see your master,” she said to the footman who had opened the door.
“Impossible” was the reply.
“No! no! do not say that. I must. Hear me,” as he hastened to shut the door, “in God’s name,” holding her hand as though to stay the closing door, “I must see him,” she gasped. “Tomorrow, — tomorrow, ’twill be too late!”
“My master is engaged, and I dare not disturb him.”
“Let me go to him for one moment. It is life or death to me; do not be so cruel, she pleaded. “See, I am dying from want.”
“I will get you something, if that is all.”
“No! no! I have something to ask — to say, he must know to-night!”
“I am sure my master will not see you, but I will ask.”
She followed him through the spacious hall. The dazzling lights from the chandeliers seemed to her a perfect fairyland.
“Sir, a woman pleads to see you,” said the footman awaiting an answer to his knock.
“Did I not say I do not wish to see anyone to night; and who can be out in such rain?”
“Shall I tell her it is not possible?”
Not waiting for the reply she boldly rushed through the partly opened door and stood in the room where sat the stern old judge writing at his table.
“Do not send me away sir, God sent me to you.”
The judge stared in astonishment. He had witnessed many sad scenes in his life, and deemed this woman but one half witted, come to plead for a doomed son.
“What is your errand?” he asked gruffly. “I do not wish to see people in my private house asking favours. This is no time, or place for—”
“Sir,” she sobbed, “my child!” — holding the sleeping babe before his angry gaze.
“Do you think, woman, I am the state to take charge of and provide for all destitute children? There is a place for such creatures.”
“Sir, in mercy, you must hear me. I must tell you, I am dying, — I cannot live much longer. Oh!” she cried louder, “God help me; my child must not die; you have power to grant it life.”
“Woman,” he said hastily. “I cannot permit these scenes. You must leave this room, and food will he provided for you!”
“I do not want food; I could not eat it; but this child— yours! Yes!” she cried louder, her teeth set with passion, “Your own flesh and blood!”
“Madwoman, how dare you come with such a vile imputation!”
“I say this child is yours — your own son’s. He ruined my young life, and left us to starve.”
“What!” rising to his feet, and walking hastily towards the bell. “Wait! — sit here,” pointing to the chair. “I have heard these stories before. My son! Good God forbid! I must clear this up.”
The woman had sunk exhausted into a chair, and hugged the sleeping babe as though to instil warmth into its cold body.
“Tell my son to come here immediately,” he said to the footman who answered the summons.
A moment later a tall young man entered the room.
“You wish to see me, sir?”
Without replying his father pointed to the dark figure in the corner.
“Who is that?”
His son turned and his eyes met the piercing gaze of one whom he had not deemed to see beneath his father’s roof.
A smothered oath escaped his lips as he stammered:
“I— I — do not know.” Then collecting himself he exclaimed loudly, “What has that woman to do with me?”
“Oh! that is what I want to know,” replied his father.
“Sir, I do not know her.”
All the pent-up passion burst forth as like a lioness she rushed towards him. “Know me! Ah, not now, the vile perishing wretch that I am. No! not as you knew me— once. Liar!” she shrieked, “Thief — who stole me from my father’s house!”
“You shall hear me!” — her heart beating violently, her eyes staring wildly, an object of pity in her dripping garments. “I do not ask shelter for myself, or food, but for this child, — his child — before I die.”
“Hush woman! you are mad; you lie. I do not know you.”
“Merciful God,” she shrieked, reeling against the table. “Oh! there is no God, to let me suffer, and send my soul to hell.”
The judge approached as though to calm her, while his son stood against the mantle shelf as one suddenly struck with an overpowering blow from an unseen hand.
“Do not touch me,” she screamed. “Let me go. I must go!” She hastened towards the door, when the judge took her by the arm.
“Let me go,” she shrieked, wildly, and pushing past him, fled out into the darkness.
Next morning the gardener found, under the spreading hibiscus trees the cold stiff bodies of mother and child. Lost among the winding paths of the garden she had sunk with her burden of care under the shelter of the trees to await the dawn.
“Death from exposure to the cold; Names unknown” — was the verdict delivered in the Coroner’s Court.
On through impenetrable darkness — on through the trackless space — two souls winged their flight, till they beheld the lights of a great city. Along the sapphire pavements, through gates of shining gold — they stand before the door, that opening, letting in, lets out no more. “Come ye souls by sin afflicted, and have passed through great tribulation, stand before the Great and Almighty Judge — justice and mercy are yours at last.”
Walker, Netta, “The Old, Old Story“, Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 15 Dec 1900: 18.
So sad, as so much is in this world (and always has been). So be it. Beautifully and passionately done. And well worth doing.
I made comment that Netta Walker’s short story was of the modern world, but then researched that she was of the 19th Century.
My comment still stands, for then and for now.
Hi Phillip. Thanks for your comments. It’s a timeless story. I posted an article on Netta Walker on Wednesday, but your comment reminds me I should have given her birth and death dates here. Where did you go for your research?